CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — The Taliban insurgents in the key Afghan province of Helmand have been driven out of the towns and marginalized, while U.S. forces are making "very steady progress" even in the most violent areas of the province, said the Marine Corps general who's in charge of the region.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills said in a recent interview that an aggressive push by thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops over the last year had turned around the situation in Helmand, formerly the Taliban's strongest base and their drug production capital.
Some 19,000 Marines are deployed in southwest Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand. The town of Sangin, in the north of Helmand, is considered the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. When Marines went in there last fall, they lost at least 24 troops in the first four months.
"Whereas a year ago (the Taliban) was deeply embedded in the population centers, I think now he's reduced to living on the fringes, out on the perimeter," Mills said. "This is an insurgent who supplies himself by stealing, taking from the local population whatever supplies he needs. He recruits young men, or simply kidnaps them for service.
"So if you deny him the population centers, you deny him the very food he needs to live on for the insurgency."
Helmand was the last province to fall to coalition forces after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the Islamist insurgency subsequently has been at its fiercest there. Successive campaigns by the coalition, spearheaded by British forces in Helmand, failed to win back the area.
U.S. Marines took over last year, kicking off a series of offensives in February 2010 with a massive assault on the insurgent-held town of Marjah. Taliban activity in Marjah has been cut dramatically, while economic development is taking off.
Securing Helmand would greatly help demonstrate that the coalition's remodeled counterinsurgency campaign, based on thousands of additional U.S. troops, is working. Helmand and the adjacent province of Kandahar are the heart of the Taliban movement.
However, violence continues to rise across the country, while the insurgency has spread over the last year to previously peaceful northern provinces. The success of the approach in Helmand will be truly tested only in late spring and summer, after the traditional "fighting season" kicks off.
Mills, who runs the campaign in southwest Afghanistan for the international coalition from Camp Leatherneck, said the Taliban had been hit so hard that their commanders weren't able to retreat for winter.
"Most of (the Taliban's) midlevel leadership, his colonels, normally go to Pakistan for winter, to rest. They're here because they have to be, in order to keep their troops in the field to fight, keep some semblance of the insurgency going," he said. "They're running out of supplies, they're running out of volunteers, they're running out of money. So he hasn't been able to rest this winter, and that was our intent."
Mills, 60, from Huntington, N.Y., said the insurgency essentially had been beaten in central Helmand, which includes Marjah, with the Taliban unable to mount counteroffensives. Afghan forces are rapidly taking on responsibility for security in towns such as Nawa, Garmser and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, which is a major change over last year, he said. With these examples set, the process of handover for other towns will be accelerated, Mills said.
Critics "don't see the hundreds and hundreds of children going to school every day," Mills said. "They don't see that kind of progress. That's the development that will make it sustainable. You give people a better way of life. They don't want to go back to the old ways."
In the north of Helmand, increasingly the focus of coalition firepower, forces are working their way up the Helmand River through Sangin toward Kajaki, where they hope to finally implement a long-standing plan to upgrade the dam there to produce more electricity. Kajaki remains deeply insecure, Mills admitted, but in Sangin, where the Marines have been in a bloody battle, the town center is now "in reasonably good shape," with the markets busier and schools opening.
"I think what's happening in Sangin is that you're beginning to see acceleration (of progress). You're beginning to see tribal elders, who are looking down south on the river, seeing places like Marjah and saying, 'It's time to change sides,' " he said.
"There's still some fighting to be done on the outskirts of Sangin. There's still some work to be done," Mills said. "It's not where Marjah is now, by any stretch. But the signs are all positive."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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